Birds of Prey | Film Synopsis and Review
I remember when I first saw the movie Suicide Squad. I had seen the trailers and was so excited that DC was finally getting their anti-hero ensemble piece. I felt like I would finally be freed of the formulaic dreck that Marvel was manufacturing. After seeing this film in theaters, I came out with a noticeable look of disappointment and regret on my face. Suicide Squad was such a terrible movie but the one saving grace, for me at least, was Harley Quinn. She was basically the only compelling character in the whole thing and Margot Robbie was inspired as the borderline psychotic Gotham city menace. I remember walking out of the theatre thinking “She should have her own movie”. Little did I know, my thought would become a reality in 2020 with the release of Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.
Just like with Suicide Squad, I saw this film in theaters and had such high hopes for it. It was advertised as a completely “female centric” film. Directed by a woman, Cathy Yan, and all of the top billed stars being female, this film was supposed to be the modern redemptive response to the failure that was Suicide Squad. Birds of Prey was supposed to be more focused on Harley Quinn and introduce new characters she associates with in the comics. On paper this sounded amazing, so needless to say I was sold. But, upon the conclusion of the film, I was a little torn. There were definitely things I enjoyed about this film but there were even more aspects of it that baffled me. Before I get into my personal analysis of this film, let me simply and objectively recount the plot.
Birds of Prey begins with Harley Quinn recounting her background as a girl who was literally sold by her father for a six pack of beer, kept coming back until she was placed at a catholic foster home and then became a psychiatrist where she met the Joker. From there she talks about their let’s just say problematic relationship and wraps up with how she and the Joker broke up for good. Fortunately for Harley, no one in Gotham knows that she and the Joker are completely done so this gives her the ability to operate with impunity. No law or criminal element would dare touch Harley no matter what she does if they still think she’s “The Joker’s Girl”. Harley tries to go on the straight and narrow by getting her own apartment, joining a roller derby team, making new friends and even adopting a pet hyena. But, one night while she is out with her friends, she overhears them talking about how they doubt she’s really done with the Joker.
They continue to say she’ll just go running right back to him like she always does. Obviously upset by this, Harley storms off, gets drunk and decides to blow up the ACE Chemical factory by driving a semi truck into it. If you’re familiar with this part in the Suicide Squad film, the ACE Chemical factory is where Harley and the Joker became official. Everyone in Gotham city knows this. So, when everyone hears about it, Harley inadvertently declares open season on herself by everyone who wants revenge on her. With half the city after her, the main threat comes in the form of Roman Sionis aka Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor. He has never liked Harley and now that she’s unaffiliated he can finally be rid of his biggest headache. In between this we have detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) covering a series of mob hits in the city coming from someone dubbed as the “crossbow killer”, Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett) singing at Sionis’s club then being promoted to his personal driver and then flipped by detective Montoya to give her inside information about Sionis. Lance has a kind of friendly relationship with a girl in her building named Cassandria Cain (Ella Jay Basco) who is a notorious pickpocket. Lastly, we have the proclaimed crossbow killer knocking off mobsters and gangsters all over Gotham. This woman is Elena Bertinelli aka The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and is actually killing all the people responsible for the murder of her entire family.
The film really gets started once Cassandra Cain pickpockets a man named Victor Zsasz, Roman Sionis’s right hand man, who was procuring a diamond for him that contains the account numbers of the Bertinelli family fortune. You see, the entire reason the Bertinelli family was killed was because of their massive fortune. And, in Gotham, he who has the money controls the city. As a safety measure, the father of the family etched their account numbers into a diamond and had it tucked away in a safe location. A rival crime family tortured and killed the Bertinelli’s to get this diamond. Somehow, through channels that are not entirely explained, Roman is getting the diamond. At first, Cassandra tries to pickpocket Dinah, I have a feeling she didn’t know who she was because she was bent over getting something from her car and then she turns around and pickpocket’s Zsasz. Cain tries to make a speedy exit but pickpockets someone else down the street, is caught and swallows the diamond.
Zsasz realizes he’s been pick pocketed and he and Lance watch as Cassandra is picked up by GCPD. Once Sionis is told about the whole situation, Harley, who is currently about to be tortured by him, pleads for her life by saying she is a mercenary and she will retrieve the diamond. Fortunately for Harley, Sionis agrees and Harley promptly makes her way to the police station to intercept Cassandra and the diamond. To make things more interesting, Sionis decides to put a bounty on Cassandra’s head to retrieve and bring her to him. Harley is successful in tracking her down and they are able to get away, despite the setback of multiple mercenaries trying to take Cassandra as well.
Montoya is put in the hot seat, as she was the one responsible for Cain, and Dinah is freaking out because, at this point, Sionis may know he has a mole in his operation. Since Cassandra swallowed the diamond, Sionis’s plan is to simply cut it out of her. Once Harley gets wind of this, she initially tries to protect Cassandra but, when her apartment blows up and Sionis has left her with zero options, she opts to turn Cassandra in. Harley takes her to a place she says no one will find them, which is an old amusement park on the Gotham Pier. Zsasz, Dinah, Montoya and Huntress are all en route to the same place. Harley forces prune juice down Cassandra’s throat to get her to excrete the diamond. During this time, Montoya arrives as well as Dinah and Zsasz. Dinah tries to convince Harley to give over Cassandra but she informs her the diamond hasn’t come out yet. Montoya promptly arrives and tries to arrest everyone, which is when the Huntress arrives and kills Zsasz.
We are then shown a flashback of the Bertinelli family being murdered and we see Victor Zasaz took part in the massacre. You see, Elena survived the brutal attack of her family and a henchman took pity on her and brought her to his family in Sicily where they trained her to become a killer. The film tells her story in fragmented pieces so I apologize if this came into play too late. After all of this goes down, Harley explains some simple truths: Dinah betrayed Sionis, Elena murdered his BFF, Harley stole from him and Montoya was the only GCPD officer stupid enough to try to build a case against him so that means they now all have to work together.
We are then treated to a montage where Sionis sends his goons inside to get what he thinks is his and all the girls fight them off to the tune of Heart’s Barracuda. It’s definitely on the nose but bare with me here, we’re almost done. Once all the girls fended off the goons, somehow Sionis gets a hold of Casandra and takes off. Harley tries to get to her but then calls on the team to help get to Cassandra. This is when Montoya, who has been on Dinah about how her mother had her same power and she would often help the police, entices her to use it to help Harley. Dinah then uses her power, which is some sort of auditory amplification, that propels Harley on her roller derby skates to gain enough momentum to catch up with Sionis and Cassandra. Harley catches up, causes the getaway car to crash and before we know it she is face to face with Sionis with a gun pointed at Cassandra’s head. While he monologues, Cassandra takes one of the grenades Harley gave her and earlier in the film and pulls the pin inside Sionis’s coat. He then promptly freaks, trips and explodes while falling into the Gotham City River.
The film then wraps up with all the girls eating at a Mexican restaurant. Cassandra is finally ready to excrete the diamond and Harley takes off with the diamond, Cassandra and Dinah’s car. It all turns out just fine in the end though. Through Harley’s voiceover we learn that she turned over all the account numbers etched in the diamond to Elena, Montoya quit the force and joined Elena and Dinah to form a crime fighting team named The Birds of Prey. Harley and Cassandra sold the diamond itself for a chunk of change and went into business together. And we end on a scene where, and I know I didn’t mention this earlier, but both Cassandra and Harley eat a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich (something that played a minor role in the beginning of the film) and they drive off into the sunset. And that is how this movie ends.
My first impressions directly after the end of this film was wow. Not wow as in that was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, but wow as in how could this film not learn from the mistakes of Suicide Squad? Yes, I will admit that there were some cool moments but, for the most part, Birds of Prey suffers from some of the same editing mistakes that Suicide Squad did. The non linear storytelling kept throwing me because it seemed like every 20 minutes we were taken back to the previous 20 minutes we just watched but from the point of view of another character we hadn’t been introduced to yet. A perfect example of this would be when, after being chewed out by her captain and ex-wife, Renee Montoya takes a phone call and it switches over to that person on the phone hiding out in a bathroom stall telling Montoya someone stole the diamond and there are mercenaries out to get the person who stole it, Cassandra Cain. This is when we get Harley’s voice over telling us to hold up and she will explain what we missed. This takes us through a rewind of what we saw so far and then we focus on Dinah Lance aka Black Canary. We see her singing at Roman’s club and showing off a bit of her powers when she hits a super high note at the end of It’s a Man’s Man’s World that shatters an empty martini glass.
She then has a, for lack of a better term, problematic conversation with a very drunk Harley, I’ll get to that later, and then ends up saving her from potential rapists. Sionis sees this and tells Victor Zsaz he wants her to be his new driver. You see, when Harley went on a wild bender to celebrate her independence from the Joker, she broke Sionis’ former driver’s legs hence why he needs a new driver. Black Canary then has a conversation with Cassandra in her apartment building, which is kind of sweet because she comforts her while her foster parents are fighting. Then, Montoya shows up before she gets to her door and tries to recruit her as her spy. It turns out Sionis’ former driver was her inside man feeding her information about the diamond coming in. Initially Black Canary declines but, when she starts driving Roman and sees how cruel he is, she decides to help Montoya. This gets us all caught up from the moment Canary makes the phone call in the bathroom. This happens at least two more times in this film, all with Harley doing the voiceover informing us of the things we did not see. Now, I just want to let it be known that I am a big fan of non-linear storytelling. I think it is a revolutionary filming/editing tactic that, when paired with an unreliable narrator, can create a unique story in it’s own right, even if it’s a story that has been told several times before. But, there is a level of tact you have to have with this method or it becomes less creative and more confusing. For instance, non-linear storytelling worked so well with Memento because our narrator was unreliable in the sense that not only does he suffer from amnesia but everyone around him plays an important role in his life but he can’t remember them. This ups the tension and forces us to really think about the events that unfolded in front of us. In this film, the non-linear storytelling is very unnecessary because the events that unfold don’t really require Harley Quinn.
Although she is connected to most of the characters, she would not know what happened with them when she wasn’t around and could not speak to what she has not seen. I understand that this makes her an omniscient narrator but this confuses the tone of the film as it is both about her and other characters she knows nothing about for the first third of the film. I’m not saying this concept couldn’t have worked but, in this film, it is handled sloppily. Imagine a 10 year old trying to tell you a story and every other sentence is “But before that, this happened” or “You have to know about this before you’ll understand what I mean when I say this”. That is how the storytelling in this film goes.
Let me now rewind, pun intended, to the conversation Harley has with Black Canary. Canary orders a drink after her set and Harley rolls up next to her drunk off her ass. Some quick, witty banter is exchanged and Harley goes on to ask Canary if she knows what a Harlequin is. Canary gives an unknowing shrug and Harley says a Harlequin’s role is to serve and that they are nothing without a master. Basically pointing to them being slaves. Personal note here, as an African American woman I found this bit to be a little uncomfortable and, considering the actress who plays Black Canary is black, this scene becomes even more cringey. I understand Harley is simply trying to say that everyone sees her as “Joker’s girl” and has since become nothing without him but come on. The writers had to have known how this sounded. And relaying this to a black character just makes it worse.
There is one more character I haven’t even expanded on yet but for a good reason. This character would be Elena Bertinelli, aka Huntress. Huntress is the last of the mains to be introduced completely but she does show up in about half of the movie in other character’s storylines, killing people attached to some of the other characters. She even becomes a deus ex machina for Harley when she is almost killed by a criminal in an alleyway. Elena Bertinelli’s entire motivation during this film is to kill the men who executed her family and retrieve her family fortune. I mean, I assume that the second part is her motivation as well because she never really mentions it. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an incredible actress and she can be quite comedic when she wants to be, but this movie just wastes her talents. Huntress is the main cause of a lot of the events that happen in this film and she isn’t properly introduced until the third act. This is just sloppy character development for me and a lot of the reason why I say that this film suffers from a lot of the same problems Suicide Squad does.
Another big comparison to Suicide Squad I could make are the title card for each character. When Black Canary, Renee Montoya and Huntress are introduced, their name appears in an admittedly sleek manner with a personalized font. Although they don’t list personal traits like Suicide Squad, it just gave off that vibe and put a bad taste in my mouth. The messy non linear storytelling, customized character titles cards and act three climax are far too similar for me not to compare it to Suicide Squad. Another thing that did not help the film was, when Harley raids a police station, she is walking out and there is a wanted poster for Digger Harkness (aka Captain Boomerang) and Harley says, out loud, “Hey, I know that guy”. Willingly connecting that bomb of a film to this one was a huge mistake in my opinion. I really thought this film would be the one that corrected the things Suicide Squad got wrong but it looks like Birds of Prey just followed in its footsteps. The only real difference Birds of Prey makes is that Harley Quinn gets a more fleshed out backstory and it is a very female centric film, which I respect and admire but it’s not enough to make a compelling film.
In order to give this movie a bit more of a fair shake, I will mention a few things I actually liked about it. One of the main things I really liked about this film is it’s visual style. The color grade and color schemes of this film fit so well with each character and the chaotic nature of the story. There are moments when the use of color just makes the scene pop and forces you to take notice. One scene I think really shows this is when Harley raids the Gotham Police Precinct looking for Cassandra and she uses a bean bag gun labeled “The Fun Gun” and colorful bean bags as well as multicolored confetti pops out. She also throws in a few smoke bombs that emit vibrant colors and I just thought it really made the scene unique. I really did like the actors, it was great to see Rosie Perez in a film again and I think she was incredible in her role. Rosie Perez is funny, tough and loud, which is why I think she really sold this character. I always thought Margo Robbie was a great choice for Harley Quinn and she did not disappoint; she just needed better direction. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jurnee Smollett were so amazing as Huntress and Black Canary that I honestly would love to see a movie with just the two of them. One last thing I really enjoyed about this film was the soundtrack. I love music and movie soundtracks are very crucial for me because the right music at the right time can make or break your film. I thought the use of music in this film was spot on and each track fit the flow of the movie perfectly.
Although there were a few things I liked about this film, it was not enough to sway my opinion that this film just falls flat on its head. I had such high hopes for this film because of the theatrical bomb that preceded it and the fact that it was going to focus on the women of the DC Universe, something we didn’t get outside of Wonder Woman, but it did not satisfy my expectations. I hope that if Birds of Prey gets a sequel, Black Canary, Huntress and Montoya get to control a majority of the storyline with maybe a cameo or guest appearance by Harley Quinn. Expanding on this even further, I would love to see a Gotham City Sirens film that includes more of the women in the DC Universe. Like, instead of rebooting Batman for the trillionth time, let’s see Poison Ivy, Catwoman and others brought to life on the big screen in a bigger,better way.
Birds of Prey is a decent film and I enjoyed watching it but it was nowhere near what I thought it was going to be. I just feel like there was so much potential but it never quite got there. Although this is my personal opinion, I highly recommend you watch this film to not only form your own opinion but to also revel in actors that bring these iconic comic book characters to life.